The serpent story.

In this story, the Israelites are in the desert. They are complaining, again. Let’s look at this story in full to start off with.

Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Now, let’s break it up into sections to look at it more closely. Here’s verses 4-5.
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”

This is a fairly common complaint. No food, not water. They often complain that things were better for them when they were slaves in Egypt. This is fairly common for people on general. We will leave a bad situation and then return to it. It is “The devil you know” idea. How often do abused women return to their abusers? How often do drug addicts relapse after recovery? Way too often. This is human nature.

Notice that they complain that there is “no food” and then in the same sentence they complain that they “loathe this worthless food”. So what is it? Is there none of it, or is it “worthless”? You can’t complain about the taste of food if there isn’t any there to eat. This is very important to notice. It proves that there was food – just not what they wanted.

Things don’t get better after they complain – they get worse. Here’s verse 6.

6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

This hardly seems fair. In other examples, the Lord gets Moses to either strike or speak to a rock and water gushes forth, or the Lord sends manna or quail. Here, the Lord doesn’t send food or water. The situation gets a lot worse with snakes.

I’m sure they had food and water, but not enough to keep them happy. I don’t recall anywhere in the Exodus from Egypt that the people starved to death or dropped dead from lack of water. Generally what killed them was what happened after they complained. That is a good thing for us to ponder on. We should appreciate what we have.

The Israelites finally understand that they shouldn’t have complained. What they had wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t awful either. Here’s verse 7.

7 And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

I find it interesting that they just asked for the snakes to leave – they didn’t ask again for food or water. Perhaps they realized that what they had was enough.

The story concludes in verses 8-9.
8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Notice that the Lord didn’t remove the snakes. Instead, the Lord sent a way to get healed from them instead. The Lord has the power to make the snakes disappear, but didn’t. Why? And why make it so that people had to do something special to get healed?

I’m reminded of some of the stories with Jesus. The lepers had to go to the priest to get the ritual blessing before they were totally healed. The cripple had to wash in the pool at Siloam. The palsied man had to straighten out his arm. People sometimes had to do things to get the healing they wanted. It wasn’t done to them. They had to participate. Often they are told that their faith has healed them. It wasn’t something passive. They were active agents in their own healing.

The snake on a staff symbol is used today by doctors. It is known as the caduceus, but from what I’ve read on Wikipedia, it really should be the Rod of Asclepius. This is interesting, because many doctors as well as scientists are not religious at all. They believe that healing comes from them, not from the Lord.

It is also interesting that it was a snake that was the source of the sickness, but also the source of the healing. I’m reminded of the snake in the Garden of Eden. It was seen as the beginning of all sin, as it led the people astray from the commands of the Lord.

All Bible verses are RSV.

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Give credit where credit is due.

Why did Moses not get to enter the Promised Land? Because he didn’t give credit to the Lord. When I first read this passage I didn’t understand why the Lord got upset and pulled away Moses’ right to lead everybody out of the desert. Moses died in the desert, within sight of the end of the journey. It seemed capricious and unfair. But then I heard a talk about it and I understood. Let’s try to work it out here.

Numbers 20:1-13

1And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. 2 Now there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people contended with Moses, and said, “Would that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, 7 and the LORD said to Moses, 8 “Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water; so you shall bring water out of the rock for them; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him. 10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. 12 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Mer′ibah, where the people of Israel contended with the LORD, and he showed himself holy among them. (RSV)

Did you see it?

The Lord commanded Moses to
8 “Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water; so you shall bring water out of the rock for them; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” (RSV)

He was supposed to take the rod, assemble everybody together with Aaron, and tell to the rock in front of them to yield water.

What did he do instead?

9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him. 10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. (RSV)

He took the rod. Check.
He and Aaron got everybody together. Check.
The rest? Fail.

He said “Shall we bring forth water for you…” We – like it is his doing, not the Lord’s. And then he struck the rock with his rod. God didn’t say to do that. He said to tell the rock to yield its water.

The way Moses did it, it looks like Moses has the power. Moses was great, but he wasn’t God. He was just a vehicle for God’s power.

Not only did he not do it the way God said to do it, he did it in such a way that makes it look like he is God.

And because of that he never left the desert. So close, and yet so far.

We have to remember this. Moses has many things to teach us about standing up to God. There were many times that God wanted to wipe out the entire family of Israel because they were not being thankful. Moses intervened. That alone is a big deal – nobody stands up to God.

But nobody stands in the place of God either.

For Moses to make it look like he was the one bringing forth water instead of God was not allowable.

I’m sure it was an accident. I’m sure he got excited in the situation. He was probably frustrated too. This wasn’t the first time that he had to deal with whiny people. But he did it wrong, and he had to pay for it. He wasn’t struck down, like many others have been in this story, but he wasn’t freed either.

This is an important lesson for us.